If you’re just starting out in the sport of canoe & kayak fishing, be warned that it’s not the most comfortable way to fish, nor the most practical. Outfitting a small flat-bottom fishing boat with a trolling motor could get you onto the same type of water where canoe fishing works the best, more comfortably and for about the same cost as the fishing canoe. Add an outboard motor with some guts and you’ll exceed the fishing canoe & kayak approach by light years.
To fish from these truly small boats you have to love being in them, and some of us do enjoy being closer to the water and intimately connected to it, moving by primitive paddle strokes and strategy instead of by gasoline engine. Adding fishing to this can be tricky. Today’s canoes and most especially today’s kayaks are usually not designed for anything more than moving across the water. Even fitting ordinary tackle into a modern streamlined boat can be challenging.
Fishing poles present the first problem, since in kayaks a full length pole really does not fit down the gear hatch very easily. Breakdown poles and telescoping poles store well but take fifteen minutes or more to rig for use. If you stumble across a school of feeding fish they’ll be done by the time you’re ready to cast. Poles have to be together, and handy.
Transporting poles in canoes is easy — the rod and reel fits neatly alongside a gunnel, lashed to the top of the seats with a couple of short bungee cords. Kayaks are trickier to rig, since poles must be lashed to the top of the deck. Well secured poles embedded in the kayak’s outer webbing will be tricky to pull out if you need them in a hurry.
The better solution for a fishing canoe or kayak is the rod holder. Several types mount easily on canoes, but most kayaks don’t have a place for them. Unless yours happens to be rigged for fishing by the manufacturer, equipping a rod holder means putting a hole in the deck of the boat. This probably will go against the grain of anyone who owns and loves a kayak, but it has to be done.
The proper place for a fishing rod holder is slightly behind the fisherman where it’s handy yet out of the way. Hooks won’t tangle in the rigging and paddles won’t snag the pole on the back stroke. All that’s required is a hole in the deck to fit the tube of the rod holder. Angle the holder so the pole leans toward the stern, not towards the paddler. Seal the fitting with epoxy and the structure should be as sound as ever. Accessing the pole is a simple lift-out process.
Cheap clamp-on holders rarely fit securely to anything. C-Clamp rod mounts are at best unreliable, working loose often enough to put the tackle at risk. I tried several types before coming up with a solution that worked. Since I use the Spring Creek sail rig on my boat, I had the option of using the tiller attachment — which does clamp securely to the boat with two solid detachable fittings. A rubber-coated steel rod holder slips through the hole meant for the tiller pivot bolt and a wing nut holds it in position. If I’m fishing I slide the tiller oar under the seat. I haven’t found fishing practical when the sail is up since there’s just too much going on at once, so it’s a fish or sail situation. If I troll, I use a paddle to power the boat, not the sail.
Trolling with this setup isn’t the best way to fish but it’s fun and I have caught a few fish that way, traveling between favorite fishing spots. This approach would work much better in truly deep water — one of the problems I’ve had is that in the time it takes to cast, set the pole, and get the canoe in motion, the lure sinks deep enough to snag on the underwater tree tops in the impoundments where I fish. In even shallower water, forget trying this at all. Though I’ve not had a chance to fish for shark like this, I’ve seen film of people catching sharks from kayaks by trolling. Although that doesn’t sound like the smartest thing to do, it probably works better than trolling for bass.
On typical days on these lakes there’s enough tremor in the pole tip while trolling that it’s hard to spot anything less than a full power strike. I’ve tried clipping a bell to the tip of the pole, and that does give a clearer signal that a fish is on, but even with that rig I’ve pulled good fish for a half mile before realizing they were even on the line. If I do get a good strike my reaction speed is really slow when trolling from a canoe. Stowing the paddle and getting the pole in hand usually takes so long the fish shakes loose and goes home.
Lures only partially follow the path of the boat, meaning that you have to take a very wide course to actually guide them. I get good hits from crappie by trolling a lure over a sheltering snag or past a rocky point where a school is hanging, but paper-mouths almost always hit and break loose unless you’re actually working the rig. Sometimes it’s a handy way to find fish, but figuring out exactly where they are is tough, even if you get the same results on the same course several times. Some days I’ve done that exercise half a dozen times in a row and never actually found the hot spot. Or maybe I did, and the fish just didn’t bite when the boat was sitting on top of them.
Fish and wildlife react differently to canoes than to larger boats. You can sometimes get to within a few feet of a heron before it grudgingly gives up its fishing hole and takes off. Deer find canoes fascinating and may follow along on shore, trying to figure out what the thing on the water is. Carp often react to a canoe as though it’s a threat to their territory, jumping out of the water alongside with a startling display and a wet splash. Instead of driving everything above and below the surface into hiding by charging up with a noisy outboard, you fit into the world better in a canoe, gliding through without putting nature on edge. That’s one of the good aspects of fishing from these small boats. This quieter and slower approach works, once you have some experience with it, but there are plenty of odd problems involved.
When you do solve the tricky things and get comfortable with the system, it’s worth all the trouble. Memories from when I was a kid fishing from my Dad’s boat will always include the smell of gasoline and the sound of cursing when the outboard wouldn’t start, which was often. Canoe fishing exists apart from those problems. Some days it’s chaos and nothing is right, but then you hit the groove and everything clicks. Climbing the learning curve is worth the time and trouble, with lots of good moments along the way.